Debating India

Theatre of the absurd?

Sunday 17 March 2002, by GANGADHAR*V.

Many successful film stars fail in politics simply because of their self-interest. Yet, there are a few whose passion to serve the public has made them click. V. GANGADHAR on a phenomenon that never fails to interest the commoner.

TWO former film heroes from the South, M. G. Ramachandran and N. T. Rama Rao ended up as Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh respectively. The memory of one of them, MGR, is still invoked to seek votes. Dozens of film stars, particularly from the Hindi screen, have been nominated or elected to Parliament. Film personalities like Sunil Dutt, Shabana Azmi, Raj Babbar and Shatrugan Sinha have played active roles both within and outside Parliament. Politics continues to attract Indian film stars and in the recent Assembly elections new faces campaigned for different parties and candidates.

Films and politics have remained two of the most exciting and rewarding activities on the Indian scene. Politics has offered new opportunities for fading film stars to play heroes and heroines, this time in real life. Vinod Khanna was not very active in films when the BJP offered him the Lok Sabha seat from Gurdaspur and gaining from a BJP wave, he won. For a long time, Raj Babbar was a ``Trishanku’’ in Bollywood, swinging between hero and villain’s roles and the call from Mulayam Singh Yadav to join the Samajwadi Party must have come as a welcome relief.

What do people expect from film stars who are in politics? Their friends in the industry want them to be spokespersons and plead for tax concessions, a more sensible approach from the Censor Board and protection from the Mafia. Director Mahesh Bhatt congratulated Shatrugan Sinha for his efforts to help the industry. Tamil Nadu voters expected MGR, the politician, to be the same kind of do-gooder he portrayed in his films.

When film stars join politics out of strong commitment or a genuine desire to do public good, their credibility is intact. Sunil Dutt who had a clean record in public life entered politics to help Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, a family friend who had nominated his wife Nargis to the Rajya Sabha. Dutt, along with Nargis, had entertained jawans at border posts and helped her in starting the Spastics Society of India. After Nargis died, Dutt continued the good work. The Nargis Dutt Cancer Foundation did admirable work and Dutt undertook long peace marches in India and abroad to defuse militancy in Punjab and seek a ban on nuclear weapons. Dutt held fast to the Congress ideology and kept winning the Lok Sabha seat from Mumbai North-West even on occasions when the Congress drew a blank in the rest of the city. Politics could do with more Sunil Dutts.

Amitabh Bachchan’s brief stint with the Congress was due to his friendship with Rajiv Gandhi, but his political career floundered following the Bofors scandal that tarred and feathered Gandhi. Hounded by the V. P. Singh government and the media, Bachchan made a quick exit from politics and vowed never to return. Nearly ten years later, he was back in party politics, campaigning for his ``friend and younger brother’’, Amar Singh of the Samajwadi Party and its leader, Mulayam Singh Yadav, both of whom had shattered the dream of Sonia Gandhi to head a Congress-led coalition at the Centre. Was this a repeat of the ``Namak Haram’’ role for Bachchan?

On a recent television programme, Shabana Azmi, Independent member of the Rajya Sabha, argued that her status without any party affiliation helped her credibility and won her difficult battles. ``I can talk to the Prime Minister, his cabinet colleagues and State Chief Ministers and move things. This may not be possible if I wore a party label. My actions would be misinterpreted as political and vote catching moves.’’ To a certain extent, she is right though Sunil Dutt’s links with the Congress have not hampered his effort to ``move things.’’

Actor-politicians like Dutt and Azmi gain in credibility because they do not have to depend on politics for a livelihood and are successful in their own careers. Dutt is rarely mentioned in inter-party squabbles or the art of dinner diplomacy to woo wavering MPs and MLAs. He is a practitioner of constructive politics. So is his senior colleague, Dilip Kumar who found the Samajwadi Party too unruly and came back to his first love, the Congress.

Unlike Bollywood actors, the Southern film stars have a different attitude to politics. Kerala made political films featuring top stars who, however, shied away from the real thing. Veteran hero, Prem Nazir wisely declined offers from political parties because he knew the electorate would not vote for him. In Tamil Nadu, cinema and theatre were part of the ideology of the Dravidian movement. M. G. Ramachandran was a child of this movement and was able to switch roles effectively. So did Muthuvel Karunanidhi who wielded his pen like a master. The Tamil screen also threw up Jayalalithaa who projected herself as MGR’s heir. It was difficult to separate films from politics and both the DMK and the AIADMK, with their quota of film stars, are still going strong.

Neighbouring Andhra Pradesh witnessed a different phenomenon. The Congress had become so corrupt and arrogant in the State that anyone with a bit of charisma could take over. This happened with N. T. Rama Rao who projected himself as Rama, Krishna, Viswamitra et al. In just eight months after he started the Telugu Desam on the issue of hurt Telugu pride, the party swept the polls and came to power. But NTR quickly ran out of ideas, his personal quirks made him an object of ridicule and today’s high-tech Telugu Desam, under son-in-law Chandrababu Naidu, has nothing in common with its founder.

Ideology apart, how significant is the selfishness motive which has drawn film stars to politics? Vyjayanthimala Bali, after an undistinguished stint as the Congress MP, was denied a party ticket for the Lok Sabha. Miffed, she immediately joined the BJP. No questions of ideology here, only self-interest. Sometimes, pure luck carried some of the film stars to dizzying heights in politics. Remember Dipika, who played Sita in Ramanand Sagar’s TV serial,``Ramayana’’? Exploiting the Hindutva fervour generated by the serial, the BJP nominated Dipika for the Vadodara Lok Sabha seat, which she won. She spent one term in the Lok Sabha without speaking a word.

Today, there are plenty of stars waiting to do a ``Dipika’’! Perhaps that is why Hema Malini opted to campaign for the BJP in Punjab and introduce herself as the bahu in her husband Dharmendra’s home town. The audiences were not amused and gave the BJP the heave-ho. Another fading star, Juhi Chawla, suddenly remembered she had a Gujarati husband. Off went Juhi to campaign for Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi at the Rajkot assembly constituency where she announced she was Gujaratni bahu. Another former star, Poonam Dhillon, joined the Congress and got herself photographed with Sonia Gandhi. Despite such comic interludes, Shabana and Shatrugan Sinha firmly believe that more film stars should join politics. Sinha, who has been playing a love-hate game with the BJP, has been hopeful that one day India would have a film star Prime Minister and Chief Ministers. Director Mahesh Bhatt, however, does not agree. Film stars, according to him, could achieve more by way of social causes, by remaining outside active politics. Veteran star, Dev Anand, agreed. He started a unit of the Janata Party immediately after the Emergency was lifted, but soon gave it up in disgust because of in-fighting and ego clashes. ``I do not go near politics now,’’ he confessed.

In trend-setting Hollywood, a failed actor Ronald Reagan became the Governor of California and then a Republican President of the U.S. His teflon charm hid the fact of his being a total failure in the job. His ignorance of international affairs was abysmal and one felt he was acting all the time at the White House. Top Hollywood stars did take interest in politics, supporting the Republicans or the Democrats as per their conservative or liberal leanings. But few of them entered active politics and made a run for office. Actors like Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman and actress Meryl Streep came out against war hysteria, nuclear threat, injustice to Native Americans and free availability of deadly guns.

Issues interested them more than political plums.

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